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Ventriloquism: I Hear Voices

What is Ventriloquism?

Ventriloquism is a finely crafted art that has been mastered by a select few. The techniques of distorting one’s voice to make it seem as though it is coming from another source; in this case a puppet. Like magic, these techniques were guarded and passed down throughout the centuries. It has been used as a form of entertainment for years, and has its origins dating back to as early as the sixth century, back when many thought it to be a form of witchcraft, but more on that later.

“Throwing your voice” is actually a misnomer. Contrary to what some may tell you, you do not actually throw your voice. This is virtually impossible. Some voices are sometimes able to reach pitches that resonate off of specific items such as glass or metals, which, basically, cause somewhat of an echo effect, but no one, can actually “throw their voice”.

Some history

Ventriloquism got its start in ancient times and was used by spiritualists to give the impression of communicating with the dead. The first known ventriloquist of this type to be written about was Louis Brabant. He was in the court of the French King Francis the First. King Henry the 8th referred to him as the King’s whisperer. It became a widely spread belief that the spirits of the dead could inhabit the stomachs of the prophets and speak wisdom into the prophets by which they could then tell the future.

This is where we get the name "ventriloquist" which means, "belly speaker" in the Latin. Of course, it was the engastrimanteis (“belly prophets”) themselves who had merely mastered the art of ventriloquism so they could fool their listeners and claim to have access to divine powers.

For a very long time, ventriloquism was viewed negatively by many and had a stigma of being demonic in nature by the Christian church. It was later looked upon as simply being a form of entertainment and lost its historical roots in divination. Listening to the "voices from the belly" was no longer practiced, however the name stuck.

Around the end of the nineteenth century (1886 to be exact), an English Journalist by the name of Fred Russell took his hobby of ventriloquism to London’s Palace Theatre and came up with an act, which was performed with his dummy "Coster Joe" and records Russel as being the first to use the concept of placing a vent doll on the knee and having a one on one dialogue. Russell became known as the "father of modern ventriloquism" and this set precedence for future vent performers such as Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy and Paul Winchell (Winchell-Mahoney Time - 1965–1968). Later, we had Buffalo Bob and his cowboy counterpart, Howdy Doody with their television show that lasted on the air for well over ten years, starting in the 1940's. Then, Shari Lewis with her crew of glorified sock puppets Lamb Chop, Hush Puppy, Charlie Horse and so many more became popular on television in the 1950's and 1960's.

The Goal

The goal of a ventriloquist is to project the suspension of disbelief to the audience by pretending to carry on a conversation with an, otherwise, inanimate object (for all intensive purposes relating to this blog, a puppet). Moving the puppet’s mouth while talking and at the same time, not moving yours, is how this is basically accomplished.

The puppet’s voice obviously comes from the ventriloquist, but since there is no sign of the operator moving his or her mouth or lips, then the voice seems to come from the puppet. It has been proven that our eyes naturally try to focus in on the source of the noises or the voice that we hear. But, a successful ventriloquist can make the source appear to come from another object, which, in turn, makes us think that the source is coming from the animated object on stage. As an audience member watching this, we know better, but a good ventriloquist can make it seem real and cause us to subconsciously think that the puppet is actually talking even though we know for a fact that it is not and this is the perfect example of suspension of disbelief in a nutshell.

Because ventriloquism is such a complex and interesting topic in the world of puppetry, I am going to break it down into two separate posts so as to give appropriate concentration to specifics and not bombard you with everything all at once. In this blog we will concentrate on:

Letter exchange

It may come as a surprise, but there are actually only a few letters in our alphabet that we need to move our lips on. The same can be said about quite a few other languages as well, but we will concentrate on the English alphabet here.

Jimmy Nelson, who, in 2011, was dubbed as "The Dean of American Ventriloquists" created a standard for teaching that is still used by pretty much every ventriloquist instructor out there. “Instant Ventriloquism” produced in 1964, was a hit; so much so that a second training album, “Jimmy Nelson’s Ventriloquism 2” was released in 1966.

Mr. Nelson worked out a standard way of replacing certain sounds with others, which actually has both scientific and psychological foundations backing his theory. A proven fact is that our mind will “fill in the blanks” when something doesn’t register quite right.

This is why it is so easy to think that someone said something that they didn’t if you didn’t hear them correctly. So a Ventriloquist learns how to use the mind’s ability to “translate” what was heard into something that makes sense. I will get into this a little more later.

The letters we move our lips on are "B", "F", "M", "P", "V", and "W". To not move your lips and give the impression that the puppet is speaking; you need to make the following letter exchanges. Basically, letters that do not require lip movement will be used to replaces the letters that do require lip or pronounced tongue movement.

B= D

This will not be a pronounced d, but rather a lower breathed duh sound using your tongue on the back of your upper teeth. It should sound almost like a combination of a D and a TH. Another thing that you can do to make a more pronounced difference between these two letters is to add some emphasis when you are pronouncing a real D sound by having your tongue pressed into the upper pallet or the roof of your mouth.

F= Th

If you make an F sound and a TH sound as it is pronounced in the word “thistle” then you will notice that there really isn’t too much difference.

P= T

Again, this is not a pronounced T sound, but a breathed attempt at T by using your tongue at the back of your top teeth. Pancakes become “Tancakes.”

M= N

Words that contain M and N become really hard to say. This is where under announcing the M and over announcing the N make a big difference. M is a low N sound done with the tongue at the back of the upper teeth while the N sound is done very pronounced with the tongue being up in the pallet.

V= Th

The V is accomplished by the tongue being at the back of the upper teeth and doing a low, breathed TH as in “this” and “that” with a little more emphasis on the rest of the word. An example would be for the word “very” you would pronounce it like “thery” with more announcing on the “ery” part.

Now W is a little trickier. It is commonly included as one of the difficult letters, but it actually isn’t. The only time the letter W is difficult is when you are saying the word “Dubbleyew” and this is because of the B sound that is pronounced in the middle of the word. As far as the sound, however, it is really easy. It is actually a combination of two sounds. If you slow down the sound that the W makes, you will hear “ooh” and “awe” When you say these two sounds together in a low combination you get the “oohaw” sound of the W.

O.k. now that you are an expert, try saying this:

“The violent bunny paints funny money with violet paint.”

N0? Not working for you yet? Well give it time and lots of practice. This is one of the times that a mirror and/or a video camera come in really handy.

Though Jimmy Nelson’s training was ground breaking, it was all audio and you missed the visual aspects. I learn more visually and that is why I recommend now the video series by Tom Crowl.

His way of teaching takes Mr. Nelson’s instructions to the next level.


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